Finding reasons to rebrand is easy: there are plenty of good (and bad) ones that make sense. And recently, rebranding has been on the collective-internet brain; articles about rebranding are being published often these days. For example, Noah Kagan paying seven figures for Sumo.com reached the top of the charts and made some waves in the startup world.
Realistically, though, most of us indie hackers and bootstrappers don’t have millions of dollars to spend on a new startup identity or highly sought-after domain name. Money is always as tight as time when bootstrapping, so I’ve put together this article to help you execute a rebrand strategy on a budget.
Reasons to Rebrand Your Online Business
When founders build startups as side projects, they don’t always do extensive market research, and they often pick names that sound cool or clever (or chosen out of simple availability). This can result in a startup name that’s “rough terrain” for building an identity. Some reasons may include: the name easily confused with other startup names; it’s hard to remember; doesn’t resonate with how your customers describe the product; or it’s disconnected from your current product due to a pivot from the original idea. This is the perfect time to rebrand.
You also may be considering rebranding if you’ve expanded, or want to expand, from a single product or service into a suite of services.
Or it’s also possible that you got real lucky, and acquired a great domain name that’s too good to pass up.
Whatever the reason, you’re ready to make some changes. Let’s dive into how to approach and execute a complete rebrand of an online startup.
Step 1: Conduct keyword research (30-60 minutes)
Keyword research will help you determine what words and phrases would be ideal for describing your business and how they rank in search engines. You’d approach this the same way you’d do keyword research for writing an article. You can use keyword research tools, or simply do what I do—use Google Autocomplete in combination with an awesome Chrome extension, Keywords Everywhere, which shows you related keywords and phrases that you may not realize are searched for more frequently by your prospective customers.
Step 2: Find and buy a desirable domain name (1-120 days)
This step can actually take you quite a while, but it’s better not to rush it. Finding and buying a great domain name for your business is one of the hardest things to do, but it can make a big difference in the long run. You have a couple of good options here.
A good place to start is to do a search for your ideal names and see if any domains are parked and/or for sale. Reach out to owners with polite lowball offers from a non-identifiable personal email address. Don't explain who you are or what you need the domain for (like an existing business). Many individuals will gladly sell for $1-3K, but you’ll want to start low and work your way up to a final price. (Brush up on your squatted domain skills here on IndieHackers Learn.)
Another useful approach is to visit NameJet.com and search for top level (.com is best) expiring domains that contain your keywords. I’m almost always able to find something suitable. For example, using NameJet, I got Engage360.com as a backup domain so I could move/rebrand if I decide to pivot my current business BigMailer.io away from email marketing via Amazon SES and into a marketing platform with landing pages, support for SMS, and other tools. Since I don’t own the BigMailer domain with the more-desirable .com extension (it’s listed for $50K, and I’ve yet to decide to spend on a domain name), I thought it best to have a backup domain in case someone buys and starts using the .com address.
I also rebranded my education site from TestDesigner.com to HelpTeaching.com using the site, which allowed me to pivot from a single tool to an education portal with a collection of tools and resources. I mentioned this in my interview with IndieHackers as one of three major decisions that helped fuel business growth.
You may not always have the same results. If you’re unable to find something, you can use just repeat the search weekly until you do.
A couple tips for searching for domains:
- Always check your desired domain's backlink profile using a tool like Ahrefs or Moz Keyword Explorer. You could have leftover SEO juice, which is a bonus, or spammy links if spammers have already used it for the leftover SEO juice.
- Check social profiles using the target domain's name, e.g., facebook.com/[your domain name] and Twitter.com/[your domain name]. It's not a big deal if they’re taken so long as they’re not being used by your competitors. If they are available, it's extra value you can consider in your bids or purchase price. Of course, if you already have built up social accounts with decent audiences, you don't need new ones just to match new brand.
A quick note on trademark infringement:
I was advised by an experienced trademark attorney that trademark protection doesn’t generally apply to domain names. In other words, you can’t claim infringement based on you owning a trademark and someone else using the domain, regardless of who has “first use in business” advantage. However, if someone either registers or attempts to transfer ownership (and change registrant) on a domain name that is an established trademark, they likely violate the terms of service of the registrar. Most registrars will consider a complaint from trademark owner, and ownership transfer is possible, which gives trademark owners some protection.
Step 3: Rebrand (5-10 days)
The more established your business and the more assets you have (e.g., social media accounts), the more effort the actual rebrand will take. Here are some of the tasks that you will need to tackle:
- Design a new logo(s).
- Search and replace your brand name mentions on the entire site/application and update the image path for a new logo.
- Set up new social accounts and seed them with your recent content (optional).
- Launch your site/app onto new domain. Review and test.
- Redirect your old domain to the new one. If you keep all of the URLs the same, then the ideal way to redirect is with a * rule and regex pattern where every page requested on old domain redirects to the same page on new domain. This is also a good time to optimize your URLs for SEO (remove folders/parameters and add keywords into URLs), especially if your public and indexable site's footprint is small (less than 50 pages). After that, identify top ranking pages or those with external backlinks, and set up individual redirects for those pages; then, catch the rest with a global redirect.
- Announce your rebrand via email to all customers as well as on your social media channels. I suggest you pin the announcement posts to the top of your Facebook and Twitter feeds for one month.
Best Time to Rebrand
Just like with any other major change to your site, it’s best to execute a rebrand during your slowest season or month. All you have to do is simply allow Google to index your site on the new domain and update your site’s appearance in search results. This can take one to three weeks for small sites, but it should only take a few days for sites with a large presence that get crawled daily.
Tracking the Impact of a Rebrand
If you follow SEO best practices when conducting a rebrand, you shouldn’t experience an SEO hit on your search engine rankings. Depending on your old domain rankings and its residual SEO juice that was forwarded to the new one, as well as if your new domain name has better keywords than the old one, it’s possible that your site starts ranking for new keywords and phrases within weeks. You will, of course, need to begin optimizing your site content and any external backlinks with new target keywords.
So now you have the knowledge to rebrand on a budget! With the basics down, what’s your first step into your new startup identity? Have you recently done a successful rebrand? If not, what’s holding you back from doing one? Share your experiences and questions in the comments section!
Lilia Tovbin is a co-founder of BigMailer.io, an email marketing platform for agencies and makers powered by Amazon SES. She sold her Ed Tech B2C business in 2016 and worked as a web developer for various media companies for over 10 years before becoming a full-time entrepreneur. You can follow her journey on Twitter.